The B-1B bomber crew had just finished an aerial refueling over western Iraq on Monday afternoon when it received orders to fly to Baghdad and strike a building where, according to U.S. intelligence, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons were likely holed up.
Twelve minutes later, according to an account given yesterday by the crew, the B-1B dropped four satellite-guided bombs, flattening the building in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood.
"When we got the word that it was a priority leadership target, immediately you get kind of an adrenaline rush, the crew does," Air Force Lt. Col. Fred Swan, one of the weapons systems officers, told reporters in a telephone interview. "But then you fall back to your original training that says, 'Hey, let's get the job done.' "
U.S. military spokesmen were unable to say yesterday whether Hussein and his sons had actually been in the building when it was struck at 2 p.m. local time -- or who else may have died in the attack. But the remarks by the bomber crew provided a glimpse into the coordination involved in the operation and the speed with which fresh intelligence about an enemy's suspected location on the ground can now be acted on by warplanes overhead.
At a Pentagon news conference, Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Pentagon's Joint Staff, said 45 minutes elapsed from "when we received potential intelligence" about the Baghdad target to when the bombs fell.
Swan said he and the rest of the crew could tell from their orders, which came from a controller aboard an airborne AWACS surveillance plane, that they were going after someone big. Swan suspected it might be Hussein.
"At the time, for me, what I was thinking was, 'Well, this could be the big one. Let's make sure we get it right,' " he said.
The crew triple-checked the Global Positioning System coordinates that would guide the bombs to the site.
"There wasn't a whole lot of time for reflection as we were doing the bomb run," Swan said.
He recalled being preoccupied mostly with how to defend against the lingering threat of Iraqi missiles and artillery fire and with how to exit the Baghdad area after the bombing. Cloud cover over the Iraqi capital limited the chance of being spotted from the ground, he said.
Flying at an altitude of just under 30,000 feet, the plane dropped two satellite-guided GBU-31 bombs designed to penetrate deeply into a target before exploding and, three seconds later, another two of the bombs with 25-millisecond-delay fuses.
Capt. Chris Wachter, the plane's pilot, recalled having a "good feeling" after the bombs fell away, but said that lasted about three seconds as he turned his attention to the next mission. The plane went on to drop 17 other bombs on two targets -- a surface-to-air missile site and an airfield -- before returning to its base in the Persian Gulf region and ending a mission that had lasted 101/2 hours.
The swing-wing, four-engine jet bomber carries 24 satellite-guided bombs. Since the start of the war, B-1s have been in the air over Iraq around the clock.
"At any given time, I've got an airplane up there over Iraq, I've got an airplane heading up, and I've got an airplane coming home," said Col. James Kowalski, commander of the 405th Air Expeditionary Wing, who participated in yesterday's phone interview with Swan and Wachter. He noted that such a schedule effectively puts a total of 72 bombs carried by the planes at the disposal of U.S. commanders running the war.
Other crew on Monday's mission included: Capt. Sloan Hollis, the co-pilot; and Lt. Joe Runci, another weapons systems officer. All are members of the 34th Bomb Squadron of the 28th Air Wing based at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.